Stars Fell on Alabama, Part 2

Part 2: “We had a little excitement around here today.”

Part 1: Our Little Drama

Hewlett Hodges, the tree surgeon, arrived home from work around six p.m. He walked into his house and immediately noticed the hole in the roof. Ann Hodges greeted him. She smiled at her husband and with practiced understatement said “We had a little excitement around here today.” 

As Alonzo Arnold watched the heavens explode a cadre of ROTC cadets marched across the University of Alabama campus. Cadet Donald Loveless gazed at his watch. It read 12:45pm. November 30, 1954, was a dull day. Then something like “a Roman Candle falling to Earth” barreled across the sky above Tuscaloosa.

By this time people from Atlanta to Mississippi knew something was on fire and the Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, deployed search and rescue helicopters to identify what they assumed to be a “missing plane reported to have exploded.” Their search quickly drew them towards Sylacauga.

A man stood at the bottom of a marble quarry, 125 feet down. He surveyed groundwater and right now he engaged himself in measuring the cleanliness of Sylacauga’s water supply. The man stared at the ground for a living, he’d noticed neither the fire roaming the skies above Alabama nor the great noise that accompanied it. A head appeared over the rim of the quarry and a voice echoed down.

“George Swindel?”

The man looked up at the distant figure that called his name.

“Yeah?” his reply echoed up from the quarry floor.

“It’s me, Chief Ashcraft, the mayor needs to see you.”

George Swindel rode with W.D. Ashcraft towards town. Ashcroft said something about a stone that nobody could identify and Swindel sighed, someone found “just another “unusual” piece of rock,” he thought to himself. Of course they immediately needed him to identify it. Such is the life of the geologist.

The pulled into the B.B. Comer Memorial School. A helicopter rested nearby with “US Air Force” emblazoned upon it in white. This was no normal “unusual” rock.

Two Air Force personnel waited inside. They pulled George Swindel into a classroom and asked him to identify the stone. He gazed at the thing; seven inches long and five inches wide, 8.5 pounds, and coated in “a satiny, black” substance about a millimeter thick. George Swindel chipped off a piece and doused it with some hydrochloric acid he kept in his satchel. There was no effervescence. Desperate for an answer he whipped out his copy of Kemp’s A Handbook of Rocks. After several minutes he looked up.

“Gentlemen, this is a..”


Meteor Hits Alabama Woman
“Meteor Hits Alabama Woman.” The Tuscaloosa News. December 1, 1954.


“Meteor Hits Alabama Woman.” The Tuscaloosa News (Tuscaloosa, AL), December 1, 1954.

Swindel, George W. and Walter B. Jones “The Sylacauga, Talladega County, Alabama, Aerolite: A Recent Meteoritic Fall that Injured a Human Being,” Meteoritics: The Journal of the Meteoritical Society and the Institute of Meteoritics of the University of New Mexico 1, no. 2 (1954): 125-132.

Stars Fell on Alabama, Part 1

Part 1: Our Little Drama

Alonzo Arnold blew things up for a living.

He worked at an explosive ordnance plant in Childersburg, Talladega county, Alabama. The plant, like most parts of the state, had answered the call during the great charnel of the second war and it pumped out such death and smoke for America. Asbestos lined the walls of the plant and arsenic sank into the ground. At its peak the great plant produced forty million pounds of trinitrotoluene, and other explosives that made man into many, every thirty days.

The great plant dredged up the depths of the Coosa River to find deuterium, that heaviest of water, and sent their meager bits to a place called White Sands for a project called Manhattan. All this tearing and rending of Earth took its toll on Childersburg, Talladega county, Alabama, and in 1985; an unimaginable year to Alonzo Arnold, it would be declared a thing called Superfund. Which sounds charming until you learn the definition.

Alonzo Arnold blew things up for a living and right now some leftover stocks of trinitrotoluene needed to be destroyed. He set the TNT very gently on the ground and readied the timer. A long whip of burning rope lay ready. It sizzled and cracked as Alonzo Arnold retreated to a safe distance. His mind wandered and he looked away from the impending and familiar boom of something as mundane as TNT.

The greatest crack he ever heard shattered the heavens. An unforgiving cacophony of rock and ice screeched through the atmosphere and exploded as it hit the sky. Alonzo Arnold stared at his stockpile of munitions. They rested sweetly upon the ground as the flaming coil snaked slowly forward. Unexploded. Inert. Mostly stable. Then he looked towards the horizon.

A great black cloud traveled towards the northeast.

Alonzo Arnold recognized a mushroom cloud. For a moment, squatting in that field, he must have thought it was the end of the world.


The Beam in John’s Hand

On March 19, 1820, John Wood lay in wait.

Camouflaged and patient he concealed himself behind the trees or a barn, the court documents are not specific, and most of all, he waited.

Up the road walked a man named Major. Listed in the court record as an enslaved person, the property of one John Simmons, we have no real record of Major. We know he was a full grown man but not his true age. We know he was enslaved but not his duties nor how many other people shared that status with him on John Simmons’ property. We know little but we do know this.

On March 19, John Wood waited for him “with malice aforethought.”

Unlike previous assaults on enslaved people this was premeditated. John Wood did not simply attack Major in a fit of rage nor did he see the man alone and decide to take advantage of the situation. From his willingness to wait we can infer some things. John and Major either possessed some prior grievance with each other or John Wood wished to lash out at John Simmons, Major often took this particular path, and John Wood knew the man well enough to time his movements accordingly.

Up came Major and John Wood leapt up to meet him. He brandished “a certain wooden stick which he the said John Wood in his right hand then and there held,” and with this stick he stabbed forward. It caught Major in his right eye, which John Wood “did strike and put out,” maiming the man and injuring him greatly.

The court found him guilty of assault and fined him twenty five dollars.


The State of Alabama v. John Wood, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 63-64 (1821).




Long distance travel used to be a grueling and expensive process. Prior to our modern highways and various conveniences people made the trek into the southeast on foot, in carriages, and by boat. Although this seems like an understood fact, the modern reader may not truly grasp the misery of travel through Alabama prior to the advent of pavement.

From the many travelogues written by people passing through the state it is generally understood that few southerners, much less other Americans, found much pleasure in the early infrastructure. Travel proved so difficult that the first recorded bars in Alabama history described conditions along the Federal Road in Baldwin county:

This road is not passable

Not even jackassable.

So when you travel

Take your own gravel.

While the Virginia lawyer James D. Davidson complained of mud, cold, and danger; summarizing his entire 1836 trip through the state with “Home! Sweet home! Alabama! O how I would bless thee, were I once clear of thy domains.”

So imagine for a brief moment that you are one of these people. The entirety of your possessions strapped to a mule or towed behind you in a hogshead barrel that until a month ago stored tobacco. There has been sickness, misery, and corn cooked on the cold, cold ground. Your only company – panthers screaming in the distance.

Yet a light hovers in the distance. Ahead of you is rough food, a bed, and a fire shielded from the whipping wind. Now ask yourself, how much would you pay for these small comforts?

Prices for basic goods soared with the influx of travelers. Anyone with a cabin and a bit of business sense started taking in boarders. Madison county officials saw the potential for disaster, or profit, and in an attempt to control this unregulated market forced anyone operating a tavern or inn to acquire a license.* Many complied with these new laws but some people found it strange that they might own a cabin and provide the necessities and now be forced to pay the county for the privilege of performing their previous jobs.

So they to themselves, “come on, nobody is going to enforce that law,” and it’s true. Nobody enforced that law, until they did.

In June of 1822, the county cracked down on unlicensed inns. Two men eventually stood accused of the crime. Although an inane and harmless act the prosecution pursued it with the language and vigor of larger crimes. Earnest Benoit and Robert French apparently supplied many travelers with “corn fodder meat and bread and other victuals,” which prompted the county to shut down their operations.

It appears that Robert French might have operated a larger and more successful inn than Benoit, because prosecutor Joseph Eastland characterized his actions as occurring “for his own filthy lucre and gain,” whereas Benoit simply “failed to obtain a license.” Had French been selling liquor or running a casino then he would have been tried for those offenses. So we can reasonably say that he was just really good at operating a proto-hotel.

Benoit received a one cent fine while the county demanded a dollar from French. No other prosecution of unlicensed inns occurred during 1823.

*It’s not like there was a regulatory board. They just wanted that sweet, sweet tavern money.


Harvey H. Jackson, Rivers of History: Life on the Coosa, Tallapoosa, Cahaba, and Alabama (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995), 46.

Henry deLeon Southerland Jr and Jerry Elijah Brown, The Federal Road through Georgia, the Creek Nation, and Alabama, 1806-1836 (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1990), 66.

The State of Alabama v. Earnest Benoit, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 212-213 (1823).

The State of Alabama v. Robert French, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 229 (1823).



Valentine a Real G

The early 1820’s were a difficult time to be Valentine G. Pruit. He lived as a yeoman farmer during the consolidation of plantation style agriculture in Madison county, so he saw mansions being built and a local aristocracy rising, yet felt no part of that surplus. Instead, like so many poor and middling white men of his time, Valentine Pruit knew mostly violence.

However, unlike some other settlers, Valentine knew violence not as a victim but as a participant.

The man liked to fight. As such, Pruit entered the local record in spectacular pugilistic fashion.

December 12, 1822, saw Pruit run afoul of a man named Wiley Lewis. Now, Wiley Lewis served as a constable for Madison county and was thus a man you did not wish to anger. Unless you’re Valentine G. Pruit, then you do what you want. It appears that Lewis came to Pruit with the purpose of arresting or otherwise chastising him. The argument quickly grew into a rumble and the rumble settled into the natural rhythms of Valentine beating Wiley Lewis with “his hands and feet.” Eventually Valentine grew tired of this mundane assault and spied a nearby club. He whacked Lewis about the face and head until the man bled profusely and then left him there in the dirt.

He plead not guilty to all charges against him. The jurors seemed poised to throw every book at him but it quickly emerged that Wiley Lewis did not come to harass Valentine G. Pruit in his official duties as a constable. Lewis instead attempted to use his position as a constable to bully the man, which did not go well for Lewis. The court still fined Pruit fifty dollars and ordered that he “be in the custody of the Sheriff” until he paid but Pruit avoided a harsher penalty thanks to Lewis’s miscalculation.

Of course, a man like Pruit does not appear briefly and then fade away. No – he just keeps fighting.

For some unknown reason he wound up entangled with Robert Woody. April 12, 1823, began with two yeomen disagreeing and ended with “a great terror to all the good citizens” as Pruit and Woody squared up and boxed. The record indicates that they fought “in a public place” so either the middle of town or inside of a business of some sort.* It seems likely that Pruit instigated, and subsequently won, the fight as the court never indicted Robert Woody for his part in the affray and fined Pruit a further twenty dollars.

This Valentine’s Day try to remember the man who had no love for anybody.


The State of Alabama v. Valentine G. Pruit, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 199-200 (1823).

The State of Alabama v. Valentine G. Pruit, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 230-231 (1823).

*Personally hope it was a business just so they might have smashed a table.